On Tuesday afternoon, after a Dallas jury found Amber Guyger guilty of murdering Botham Jean, many people took to social media to rejoice over justice being served. Beyond the conviction, what really resonated was that the majority of news outlets covering the developing story used a split image of Guyger and Jean with the former’s mugshot and the latter radiantly smiling. To the plain eye, that framing would make the most sense: Guyger is the person who pulled the trigger and Jean is the one who lost his life tragically, and unnecessarily, in his own home. But, in the U.S., the most common and predictable practice for mainstream media in these situations is to use photos that suggest Black shooting victims of police may have posed as a threat to the person that took their lives. The guilty verdict combined with the split image, to many, felt like a potentially restorative step in the right direction — the possibility of a Black person’s innocence being recognized without caveats.
But in true American fashion, that abbreviated moment of Black hope was swiftly quelled. On Wednesday, Guyger was sentenced to just 10 years in prison for Botham Jean’s murder. When Tuesday’s conviction was announced, and Guyger faced 5-99 years, the short end of that span felt more like a formality than a real possibility, especially in a state like Texas which has been documented for its harsh sentencing for similar crimes. Just three months ago, teenage Dallas-area rapper Tay-K was sentenced to 55 years in prison for his involvement in an armed robbery that left one man dead, though he did not pull the trigger. Viewing the two cases comparatively, as many have done online in last 24 hours, begs the question: What value does the state of Texas place on Botham Jean’s life?
But it wasn’t just the sentencing itself that felt like an all-out assault on Jean’s honor. It’s the egregious coddling of Guyger from court officials and the victim’s family that frame her as some sort of victim, continuing this country’s long legacy of squeezing out empathy for white women who harm Black men; laying the foundation for lazy, half-hearted displays of regret when it’s far too late for that to make any significant difference.
As merciful as people would like to be, it’s key to remember just how Botham Jean lost his life. When Guyger arrived at the apartment complex where both she and Jean resided on the night of September 6, 2018, she wrongfully entered Jean’s apartment, which was exactly one floor above hers, thinking that it was her place. Jean was sitting on his couch, watching television, and eating ice cream. Guyger, under the ill-advised assumption that Jean was a burglar, opened fire and killed him with two shots. There is nothing ambiguous about the situation. Confused or not, Guyger entered a home that wasn’t hers and murdered a man for no reason. But on Monday, Judge Tammy Kemp ruled that the jury could consider Texas’s “castle doctrine,” which, modeled after stand-your-ground types of laws in other Southern states, argues that a person can legally defend their home if threatened. The jury didn’t choose to use the law in their decision, but it being proposed is nothing short of an insult.
What tipped the scale after sentencing yesterday was a series of compassionate gestures towards Guyger from Botham Jean’s family and court officials. His younger brother Brandt took the stand to tell Guyger that he loved her, forgave her, and pled that she’d give her life to Christ before asking Judge Kemp to hug Guyger. Botham’s father was quoted saying that he hoped that, one day, he and Guyger could become friends.
The tragedy of the Jean family’s compassion is that, in all of its earnest innocence, it will (and has already begun to) most certainly be weaponized in the form of respectability. Variations of “If they can find space to forgive her, then why can’t we?” have already began to flood the Twitter timeline. But in times of grief — especially in a high-profile case that the entire nation is watching — rationale is not always at play. Families can deal with loss however they see fit. It’s Judge Kemp’s actions that hit below the belt, though. After sentencing, Kemp — who has been publicly endorsed by the Dallas police force in the past — was filmed coming down from her stand to gift Guyger her personal bible, consoled her, and said, “You did something bad in one moment in time. What you do now matters.” Many with experience in courtrooms during similar trails expressed throughout the night on Twitter that they’d never seen anything remotely close to what Kemp did. Because no one should ever do what Judge Kemp did.
What does forgiveness look like for Black people who may have murdered or, better yet, are spending the majority of their lives in prison on non-violent convictions? The easily-satisfied may look at this outcome as some sort of progress, and that’s where the tragedy lies here. In this country, we have become so accustomed to white people, cops in particular, walking away as free citizens after taking Black life that someone being sentenced to 10 years in prison can be framed as some sort of step forward. But how large of a step is being made when the bible-gifting judge conveniently threw in the possibility of letting a murderer off the hook at the last minute? How large of a step is being made when Guyger is eligible for parole in five years and will likely have a life-changing book or television deal waiting for her the day she is released? How large of a step is being made when the default-framing of a Black person is that they are assumed criminals before anything else, even when eating ice cream on their own couch?
Amber Guyger’s sentencing and the theatrics surrounding them have, like everything else in this country, been viewed with her at the center. And that’s what it means to be white in this country: being able to administer pure chaos onto others and still having the luxury of people reaching to magnify the humanity that lies under all of the mess, only for no real lesson to be learned. It must be nice to know the feeling.